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Children’s Troupes: Dramatic Illusion and Acting Style Michael Shapiro The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses and know, from the first act to the last that the stage is only a stage and that the players are only players. Samuel Johnson1 Unless we are professionally involved in the theater, we usually watch performances by little-known actors without much awareness of the actor behind the character, although we “always know”— preconsciously — that the actor is there. But when we watch a famous actor with a strong personality, we usually find ourselves consciously aware of that actor’s identity during much if not all of the play, even while we pay close attention to the character he is portraying. In short, when we watch Olivier, Gielgud, or Burton we have what S. L. Bethell has termed a “dual consciousness of the player as player and as character,” 2 a state of mind which differs radically from the preconscious awareness of the actors as actors described by Dr. Johnson. Dual consciousness of actors as actors and characters seems to have been extremely common among spectators in the Tudor and early Stuart periods, as Bethell and others have argued. Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights could, when they chose to, use a variety of devices to heighten this dual consciousness, that is, to remind the audience of the obvious fact that it was watching actors on a stage. These devices included actors stepping out of character, direct address to the audience, and frequent metaphorical references to actors, plays, acting, stages, and theaters, although such references sometimes have other functions. If audiences of adult troupes could be made aware of the actor as actor and as character, so could audiences of children’s troupes, perhaps even more readily for in this situation the disparity between adult characters and child actors was strikingly obvious. On the other hand, dramatists writing for both kinds of companies eschewed these devices when they preferred not to remind the audience that it was watching actors on a stage. Thus dramatists writing for children’s companies, like those writing for adult troupes, could either allow the audience’s awareness of the actor behind the character to remain latent, in the preconscious, or they could remind the audience 42 Michael Shapiro 43 of what it “always knew” and play upon its dual consciousness of actors as actors and as characters. Naturally, they did both. With significant exceptions, playwrights of the period rarely ex­ ploited this dual consciousness in tragedies. As we shall see, Chapman took pains to de-emphasize the leading actor’s juniority in the first quarto of Bussy D ’Ambois, the version acted by the Children of Paul’s. Marston, however, frequently took the opposite tack, as in the fol­ lowing speech from Antonio’s Revenge, in which Pandulpho defends his unstoic weeping: Man will breake out, despight Philosophie. Why, all this while I ha but plaid a part, Like to some boy, that actes a Tragedie, Speakes burly words, and raves out passion: But, when he thinks upon his infant weaknesse, He droopes his eye.3 This passage must have reminded some spectators of the child actor behind the adult character without necessarily undermining the play’s tragic effect. G. K. Hunter has recently argued that Marston delib­ erately exploits the audience’s dual consciousness of actors as child actors and adult characters in order to communicate simultaneously both the absurdity and the seriousness of court intrigue.4 This kind of interpretation is based on the assumption that Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences could be aware of more than one level of illusion at the same time, as even modem audiences can be when given the chance. But Marston’s Antonio plays are unique in this respect among the tragedies acted by children’s troupes, for relatively few of these plays exploit the audience’s dual consciousness of actors as actors and characters. On the other hand, the comedies acted by children’s troupes, which comprise the lion’s share of their repertories, are studded with various devices intended to remind the audiences of the actors behind the characters. The four most common of these devices...


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